Monday, January 28, 2013
Douglas Messerli | "Playing the Play" (on Back to Back Theatre company's Ganesh Versus the Third Reich)
playing the playby Douglas Messerli
Back to Back Theatre company, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich / performed by Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and Luke Ryan / Los Angeles, UCLA Freud Playhouse / the performance I saw as a matinee on Sunday, January 27, 2013
The Geelong, Australia Back to Back Theatre group, according to their own description, “creates new forms of contemporary theatre imagined from the minds and experiences of a unique ensemble of actors with a disability, giving voice to the social and political issues that speak to all people.” Certainly those are lofty goals, but one does have to question the “all.” Can anything speak to “all” or even attempt to. The two elderly women who sat next to me yesterday afternoon had no idea what they were about to see, and were quite visibly disturbed when, late into the play, the actor also playing the director of the work (Luke Ryan), lashed out at the audience sitting in the first rows for “coming to see a freak show,” although he mollified them some by claiming he always imagined the first few rows of the theater as empty. The production I saw was sold out!
Moreover, this is a work which requires the audience attend, that they listen closely just to hear some of the disabled, Australian actors’ words—sometimes slurred with heavy “down under” accents—and mentally make large metaphorical connections as well as accept a work that might be seen as morally reprehensible to some. Indeed, when the company first conceived of a story in which the great Indian Ganesh, the elephant-headed “mover of obstacles” visits Adolph Hitler and Joseph Mengele to retrieve the Hindu swastika symbol, they themselves felt it might be inappropriate to combine such a “fairytale” within the holocaust.
Ryan, who New York Times critic Ben Brantley described as a “handsome and well spoken man” (i.e., apparently not mentally challenged) alone sees the importance of presenting this play, coaxing his often recalcitrant company with praise, pep-talks, only to finally give up in complete frustration after Price refuses to fall correctly upon being “shot,” a scene which ends in all-out battle between him and the others, closing down the play.
This fascinating work ends, in fact, with a character playing a child’s game—which I would argue is perhaps at the very heart of any theater (as a child I used to ask other children to “play play” with me, resulting, often, in a good scolding by some adults for my seeming baby talk)—when the angry “director” leaves Deans and the others “to take a swim,” asking him to play “hide-and-seek,” so that he can escape. Deans hides, quite predictably, beneath a table, but when no one comes to find him, grows restless, laying down to pretend to sleep, rising again, returning to the crouch with which he began. Like a trapped animal, he is confused, tired, impatient, but still continues to participate in the “play” of the game. When the lights go out, he is the first up for a well-deserved bow to the applauding audience, and, after the others take their bows, raises his arms in joy once more to take all that applause in!
And yes, we realize, that does somehow represent us all. We all want to be appreciated for the theater of the self we every day create, even if the acts we undertake cannot be as heroic as we might have desired.
Los Angeles, January 28, 2013